An altered sense of smell: every wine professional’s biggest fear


For a while I was scared. While I was ill, I noticed that something strange was happening with my palate. I could taste food OK, although maybe there was a slight loss of smell (remember, what we think of as ‘taste’ is usually smell and taste combined). But wine started tasting very strange.

And not very nice.

Both whites and reds tasted a bit simple, and also slightly stewed and oxidised at the same time. It was as if some sensations were missing, while others were either made up by my brain, or in some strange way I was becoming hypersensitive to particular aromas that ended up masking the others.

So I stopped opening wine. This lasted for around two weeks. It was worrying: being able to discriminate among wines – to understand them, enjoy them, say sensible things about them, and to judge them – is a large part of how I make my living.

I’m not ready to stop doing what I love. And I’d find it difficult to start a new career right now, even though I’m not stupid and I have transferrable skills. For a while though, that’s what I was looking at.

When my palate returned to normal (this happened over the course of a couple of days) I was very happy.

We age and our sensory capabilities change. While taste (the five basic tastes, perceived in the mouth, largely by the tongue) seems to remain quite stable, smell drops off with age. Half of people between the aged of 65 and 80 have decreased olfactory function, and three-quarters of those over 80 suffer from this. A reasonable number of wine professionals carry on tasting wine past what was previously retirement age (65). Are they still tasting well? At what point does the benefit of experience become outweighed by failing olfactory abilities?

This brush with a dodgy sense of olfaction made me think about this. I knew I wasn’t tasting very well, and if it gets to the point that I think I’m not tasting well because of age at some point in the future, then I don’t want to bluff it. So I’m going to work out a plan B, so I can carry on with my work, but it doesn’t involve tasting wines professionally, just in case. For now, though, I think I’m tasting really well. But I don’t take it for granted.

We’ve had three weeks of lockdown now. I was sick for the first two. Now I’m feeling great. I go for my permitted exercise walk every day (there are some nice fields and woods here that you can walk through), and I have two book projects to work on. I can’t wait for this to be over, but at the same time I think the world will be quite different, post COVID-19.

(I’ve also been busy adding content to the main wineanorak site.)

wine journalist and flavour obsessive

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